How to Help Kids Survive in a World Without Us

I ran across an interesting quote the other day. It was part of a collection of book reviews by food writer Michael Pollan. The best selling author of books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, had written some reviews for a woman’s magazine, citing several books he’d found relevant to his life as a parent. One, entitled The Road by Cormac McCarthy, dealt with a father and son’s survival in a post-apocalyptic world. As the father was dying, he felt implored to teach his son life lessons that would help the boy survive in a world without him.

“That was incredibly poignant,” writes Pollan. “My wife would say I’m overly protective of my son, but that is a fierce instinct, to protect your child from pain. You can prepare your child to deal with the slings and arrows, but you can’t take them yourself.”

So how do we do that, exactly? How do we prepare our kids for the difficult challenges life brings? We can’t take those slings and arrows ourselves; it’s up to us to instill in our children the confidence and emotional resilience they’ll need to get back up when life knocks them down.

As soon as children reach middle school, they must learn how to stand up for themselves (if they haven’t already). Kids at this age jostle fiercely for position and have an inherent need to put each other down or worse. It can be worrisome for parents to have a child who fears going to school because of being teased or bullied. This is the age that kids begin to steel themselves. Trying to discover their own identity, they slowly learn how to defend themselves or risk being at the mercy of those who are bigger, stronger, faster, meaner.

This whole notion struck a chord with me because my son and I had recently talked about hazing. This ritualistic practice of pranking or demeaning younger athletes as part of their entre to a team has long been done behind closed doors. pulled together a list of 68 incidents from 1980 forward involving high school and college teams that had received media attention for hazing. In many instances, the results brought recrimination — for both the schools and coaches involved.

As we were going to press, White Station High School’s football team had forfeited their opening game against Ridgeway High because of alleged hazing. Five players as well as the head coach were suspended for five days because of the incident. According to a story on WMC’s website, several freshmen were reportedly pummeled with wiffle ball bats, dodge balls, and possibly fists, and then doused with water and talc.

When I brought this up with my son, he blamed the kid who told. Quite emphatically, I might add. His reasoning was that you won’t always have your parents to defend you and that kids need to learn how to stand up for themselves instead of running away.

Nothing about how it was wrong for such activities to be condoned, nothing about how the perpetrators should have been stopped or punished. I found this interesting, in part because I know he struggled for a time in middle school, where he gradually developed a cooler veneer. I think his response reflected the vulnerability boys often feel but choose to mask.   

We’ve talked about fighting and what it means to defend yourself. As much as I don’t like violence, I know there are times when you must stand up to those who wrong you or run the risk of becoming a stooge.

We can’t be there to fight our children’s battles; kids must eventually learn how to manage those situations on their own. Instead, we can be here on the sidelines, providing the support and encouragement kids need. But parents need the backing of school officials, too. Schools need to make it clear that hazing — or any other form of bullying — won’t be tolerated. Looking the other way or providing a tepid response is sending a message that bullying is okay. 

It’s not.

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